CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 22 September 2018

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Priest named in damages suit by Korean Navy

SEOUL (SE): Father Pat Cunningham has been named in a suit filed with the Seoul Central Court by the Korean Navy on March 28 seeking compensation for damages and delay to construction work on the controversial Jeju Naval Base.

The Columban missionary, who has been deeply involved in opposition to the base, is named along with villagers and rights advocates, as well as the Gangjeong Village Association and five other groups.

The suit also names 117 individuals, including French advocate, Benjamin Monnet, who was deported in 2012.

The navy is looking for 3.4 billion won ($22.5 million) in compensation.

All those named in the suit had been involved in trying to prevent the construction of the giant naval facility, which they claim is destroying the natural beauty, biosphere and construct of the island’s only rocky wetland, as well as providing a threat to peace in the Pacific.

In 1991, the Jeju provincial government designated the area as an Absolute Conservation Area. In 2002, the location where the naval base now stands was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Conservation Area.

In December 2009, the governor of Jeju, Kim Tae-hwan, scotched the Absolute Conservation Area designation in order to allow the construction of the base to go ahead.

Father Cunningham told the Sunday Examiner that apart from the species that will lose their natural habitat, coral reefs are also being destroyed.

In addition, he asked what legal declarations mean in a world where natural objects can so easily be redefined as something else to suit whim and convenience.

He said that his group is planning a legal response in due course. “But the suit will set a dangerous precedent if it is successful, as it will strengthen the ability of the government to stifle public dissent and suppress any kind of opposition to state projects in the future,” he pointed out.

“Of course the whole purpose of this outrageous lawsuit against a people who have already been dispossessed of their land and village is to kill off the resistance of the peace movement once and for all, as well as to make it difficult for groups to mobilise in the future and mount any kind of opposition to state violence,” he continued.

He said that the timing of the suit is curious as the opposition in the National Assembly opposes the Jeju project and an election was coming up on April 13.

Father Cunningham commented that he believes that the attitude of the navy in filing the suit immediately prior to polling day smacks of arrogance, as it is an expression of certainty that the ruling administration will be returned in a landslide.

While commentators were of the opinion that the government would probably be returned, they predicted it would lose its majority and have to deal with a far more difficult opposition, as a new group of disaffected voters was expected to come on line.

Nevertheless, Father Cunningham said that even people from Gangjeong Village, who are in favour of the base, believe that this move has gone a bit too far.

Hankyoreh News reported on March 30 that the whole project is now mired in compensation suits, as last year, Samsung C&T demanded 36 billion won ($241.8 million) in compensation from the navy for delays in the construction schedule.

A figure of two-thirds of this amount was finally settled on after mediation by the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board took place. However, mediation is still going on with Daelim Construction, which is also claiming for delays.

The navy says that it is worried about wasting the taxpayers’ money.

But Father Cunningham is cynical over the navy’s claim of concern for the taxpayer, saying that if it really was worried, why did it initiate this project, which is destroying the natural environment, the social fabric of a once tight knit community and its livelihood, in the first place?

“It wasn’t lost on others who made reference to the fact that three senior naval officers have been tried and found guilty of procurement-related corruption in the military in the past year,” he added.

The head of the Gangjeong Village Association, Cho Gyeong-ryong, said, “It makes no sense for the navy to demand compensation when the lives of the local villagers have been decimated.”

Cho continued, “The same navy that said it would be working with residents is now demanding compensation and it hasn’t even been that long since they finished. It is shameful to see the navy going on about the shared benefits for residents.”

Hankyoreh said that in 2007, the administration selected Gangjeong as the site of its naval base construction, despite procedural objections over an ad hoc general village association meeting attended only by a portion of residents.

The Jeju Branch of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements also criticised the Navy’s Environmental Impact Assessment, noting that several endangered species in the area are not mentioned in the report.

The Korean Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute says naval base construction violates the cultural properties protection law.

Those who have joined the protests include resident villagers, other residents from Jeju Island, mainland Korea and international peace advocates, leading figures from various religious groups, women’s rights and environmental organisations, as well as opposition politicians.

The base is also regarded as a threat to peace in the Pacific, as it is planned to host United States of America Aegis missile destroyers, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, which in addition, are also heavy polluting machines.

Critics say that presence is a direct threat to peace in the Pacific and is really just one part of the Pacific Pivot defence policy of Barack Obama, which has been deliberately put in place to prickle China’s nerves.

The construction went ahead despite the objections of local residents, rights advocates and religious people.

 

The aged Father Mun Jeong Hyeon has kept an almost perpetual vigil at the gate of the base for four years and has often celebrated Mass there. He and others have prayed constantly and some have even circled the base on their hands and knees in an effort to protect peace and the pristine natural area.

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